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Sushant Singh Rajput (21 January 1986–14 June 2020): A star that shone briefly and was gone

The death of Sushant Singh Rajput, an actor whose talent was yet to be fully explored, leaves us with as many questions as his esoteric scientific posts on social media.

Shriram Iyengar

On 26 May, Sushant Singh Rajput posted a picture of a young Albert Einstein on his Instagram feed and wrote, 'The Avatamsaka Sutra describes enlightenment as an awareness of the “interpenetration of space and time.” One can’t help but wonder if Einstein’s theory of relativity that unifies space and time was just a stroke of genius or also a glimpse of the divine.'

Less than 20 days later, the actor was dead, leaving behind a few more questions than the ones he had sought answers to. In these dark days of a pandemic and economic collapse, Sushant Singh Rajput's sudden death feels like a punch in the gut. Even in this dark year, it is a reminder of the vulnerability that artistes, particularly film stars, often have to hide to live under the searing spotlight.

Born on 21 January 1986, Sushant Singh Rajput was an engineer by training. After school, he cleared the Delhi College of Engineering entrance exam, earning the seventh rank and securing admission in the Mechanical Engineering course. He was a National Olympiad winner in Physics, which explained his lifelong interest in science.

Strangely, it was after gaining admission to the engineering college that his interest in the arts truly took hold. Joining Shiamak Davar's dance classes, he soon discovered an innate talent to perform. From performing as a backup dancer to Aishwarya Rai at the Filmfare awards to charming Madhuri Dixit on stage during Jhalak Dikhlaa Jaa season 4, it was a journey he enjoyed.

Like the product of a scientific experiment, Sushant Singh Rajput's evolution as an actor went through the proper channels and stages. The young actor joined Barry John's troupe in Delhi to sharpen his skills, before heading to tinseltown, Mumbai. Once there, he joined Nadira Babbar's stage troupe, Ekjute, then did commercials before Ekta Kapoor came calling in 2008.

The young Rajput found his way into Indian homes through two major television series, Kis Desh Mein Hai Meraa Dil, and Pavitra Rishta. In the first serial, he played a minor character who is killed early on. But such was his draw that he had to be brought back as a spirit. There is no higher praise in Indian television than being resurrected from the dead.

The big break, though, was just round the corner. In a 2013 interview, the actor said, "I was sitting in a coffee shop when I met Mukesh Chhabra, the casting director for Kai Po Che! (2013). I auditioned for it and got selected. I was overweight and was to play a 23-year-old cricketer and lost 14 kg in the next four weeks."

Just as the audition clicked, so did the film. Playing the vulnerable dreamer Ishaan, Sushant Singh Rajput delivered one of the best debuts of the year. Cast with Amit Sadh and Rajkummar Rao, it was testimony to his screen presence and talent that the audience fell head over heels for him. To think all this was just seven years ago is also a reminder of the extent of this tragedy.

For the short time that he worked in the Hindi film industry, Rajput carved his own path. Whether it was the short and moving role of Sarfaraz in PK (2014) or the dark and courageous take on the Bengali legend in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015), the actor in him was open to experiments. While it did not make a mark at the box office, the Dibakar Banerjee film, and Rajput's performance in it, remains the most ambitious take on the Saradindu Bandopadhyay character since the Doordarshan television series helmed by the late Basu Chatterji.

Speaking to Cinestaan.com in 2017, Sushant Singh Rajput had said of his turn from science to acting, "I was shy and an introvert. For the first time I was on stage saying my lines, I could see strangers affected by it. I felt very powerful. It was a magical feeling that they could understand what I am feeling, which was never the case for the first 19 years of my life."

Even his very commercial roles as the romantic hero in Shuddh Desi Romance (2013) or Raabta (2017) had the touch of the unexpected. Yet, it was Neeraj Pandey's MS Dhoni:The Untold Story (2016) that launched him into the stratosphere. Playing India's World Cup-winning cricket captain, Sushant Singh Rajput brought to life the earthy, humble, and real side of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. So mirrorlike were his movements that it was difficult to find a flaw even in his cricketing stance. It was one of his most effective performances on screen. It convinced people that this was an actor who could pull off the 'star' element with just as much ease.

At the India Today Youth Summit in 2016, he said, "The one thing I have in common with Dhoni, and I realized it when I started filming, is that I don't obsess about the future. I don't have goals... I don't take myself seriously and that is what drives me."

In 2019, the actor delivered two wonderful performances in Sonchiriya and Chhichhore. In Sonchiriya, he played a man seeking redemption while going through an internal conflict of his own. The powerful, moving tale was proof of the actor's ability to externalize the internal monologues of his character.

In contrast, Nitesh Tiwari's Chhichhore saw him return to the boys' hostel dormitory as the lovable and charming Anni, who reminds you that life is not meant to be perfect. In hindsight now, that feels tragic.

To classify Sushant Singh Rajput as simply an actor would be an injustice. This was a man whose love of science never left him, even while he was in the midst of a very glamorous art. From buying telescopes to scan the skies to reading books that might confuse the layman, he pursued things out of the ordinary. His Instagram post is filled with phrases and thoughts that read more like a philosopher's scribblings, with quotes from Nietzsche to Rumi. His joy at visiting CERN back in 2019 was proof of his scientific roots.

It should not be surprising. The actor bought a plot on the moon and also visited NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in Florida. For a long time, he was set to play the role of an astronaut in Chanda Mama Door Ke, before the film got shelved. But that did not stop him from fulfilling his dream of stepping into the hallowed portals of NASA.

In 2018, he had shared a list of 50 things on his bucket list, which included writing a book, playing football with Cristiano Ronaldo, making a music video on cymatics in a Mexican cenote and near the Sphinx, and spending a day at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which is known by its French initials. It is a testament to the wide variety of interests in a man who was curious, deeply interested, and fascinated by the world.

While he had Mukesh Chhabra's directorial debut, a Hindi remake of The Fault In Our Stars, set to arrive after the lockdown, the actor was also keen on turning producer. In 2018, he had spoken about his desire to make films exploring science, and was also reportedly producing a 12-part series on icons like APJ Abdul Kalam and Chanakya.

Sadly, like with all bright meteors, there was invisible darkness covering Sushant Singh Rajput. One that escaped our attention amidst the despair and darkness that fell upon the country in 2020. In hindsight, there might have been trails. But like mortals clutching at meteor tails, we are now left only with speculation and thoughts. May he find the peace of the stars that he often searched for.